Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors

This year Gloria started Kindergarten in the same school where Frances is now in second grade.  We were lucky to already have a great relationship with the school librarian (who is a reader of this blog, yay!), so she wasn't surprised to have another reader on her hands.  Now we check out piles of books out of our public library on a regular basis.  But there, the girls check out as many books as they want, so there is very little actual selection on their part.  They take home everything they might be interested in.  But at the school library, Frances can only select two books at a time, and Gloria's class only checks out one book at a time.  I'm always fascinated by what they choose to bring home on those visits.  Frances tends to choose chapter books.  A few weeks ago, she brought home My Friend Flicka because she loves the movie.  I'm not sure she ever opened it, though.  She also checked out Just Grace last week, and actually renewed it this week because she liked it so much.  But two weeks ago, Gloria checked out a book that we both instantly loved.  I wouldn't let her return it until I had blogged about it (although the librarian was nice enough to let Gloria check out another book while I kept this one an extra week!).

I also want to note that this book was also published by Roaring Brook Press, who published the book I featured last week, Viva Frida. These books are both very cool pieces of art, and I hope that the rest of their offerings are just as magical!  I'll be looking out for them.  So back to Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors...

This isn't the first book about Bow-Wow.  Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug came out in 2007, and I only vaguely remember it.  But now, seven years later, here comes Bow-Wow again.  And he's not very happy.  Bow-Wow is rudely interrupted mid-nap by three perfectly white (ghostly) kittens.  They nip him on the tail, startling him.  Bow-Wow leaps straight up, and while he's in the air, the kittens steal his comfy teal bed.  They slip out the window, but Bow-Wow is in hot pursuit.  He races across the street, and enters an abandoned house.  It certainly looks spooky, built out of gray stone, with sharply pointed shrubbery surrounding.  There are many cracked and broken windows, but Bow-Wow knows it is the right place because two little white kitten faces peer out from upper windows.

The chase is on.  It involves secret passages, mysterious doors, and glimpses of white tails.  Also, sometimes he sees just a hint of the teal dog bed to spur him on.  Or so he thinks.  Everywhere he goes, kittens follow him.  They always manage to disappear as he turns corners.  The white kittens romp through rooms, just ahead of Bow-Wow, acting incredibly entertaining and very ghost-kitten-like.  Those white kittens prefer nipping Bow-Wow on the tail, over and over and over again.  Bow-Wow searches and searches for his beloved dog bed, surprising a burglar and scaring him off in the process.  It isn't until Bow-Wow opens the very last door that he comes across the reason those ghostly kittens needed his teal bed.  There is a whole floor full of rainbow-colored cushions, and Bow-Wow's teal dog bed completes it.  It's a surprising moment, but it's not the only one in this story - there is another moment when the determined Bow-Wow goes to take back his cushion.

What's funny about this blog post is that I told you much of the plot of this picture book just now.  But I've told you that without reading a single printed word.  Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors is a perfect introduction to the graphic novel.  The pages are a combination of panels and full-page illustrations.  The action is very easy to follow.  There is a clear path that guides Bow-Wow from panel to panel throughout the house.  The kittens and Bow-Wow have likable, expressive faces so readers can tell exactly what they are thinking.  The book is expressly designed to convey lots of meaning without words.

There is a limited range of colors in the book.  Most pages only have five colors - gray, white for the kittens, a tan for Bow-Wow, and of course teal, used as an accent color and also for the infamous bed.  The usage of standard colors also helps young readers focus on the main action on the page, or in the panel.  The pictures still show movement, for instance, when the dog sees a mannequin wearing a teal dress.  Bow-Wow believes that the dress hides his teal dog bed.  He darts through the dress after two kittens who have popped out of the sleeves to taunt him.  You can almost hear the thud as Bow-Wow inevitably knocks over the mannequin.

The color palette also does something astonishing for me.  The colors are consistent from page to page, which frees your eye to see all of the details Newgarden and Cash have created.  A kitten hides himself between a wall and a piece of peeling wallpaper.  I especially love a series of drawings that starts with a ghostly kitten parading up the stairs with Bow-Wow's teal dog bed.  Bow-Wow follows behind him.  As Bow-Wow starts up the stairs in an upper right hand panel, another kitten jumps to bite him on the tail in a lower left hand panel.  And after all of them race up the staircase, more kittens peek out of each stair tread - beguiling, yet a little spooky too.

There is a definite gothic feel to the abandoned house across the street.  Bow-Wow (and hence the reader) never knows what to expect.  There's a cracked mirror, leaves blowing across the hallway through broken windows, a closet full of teal junk, cats running in mid-air.  It's surprising, yet not.  The quirky details even extend to the endpapers.  When you examine them closely, each of the fleur de lis in the wallpaper is made up of ghostly kittens.  It's all clever, and intriguing, fun and sweet.

This book rewards the careful reader.  Those details don't all show themselves on the first reading, or even the second reading.  It's why this book is a perfect introduction to panels in graphic novels, but an experienced reader will also laugh out loud at some of the fun scenes.  Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors did a great job of surprising and delighting me.  We enjoyed every moment with this book.  Check it out if you're a graphic novel fan, a dog fan, a cat fan, a haunted house fan...or a fan of really cool books.

Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors.  Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

borrowed from Helena School District library

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Midnight Library

I know that I am among friends when I relay the following story.  When I was young, I entertained the idea of many other careers (dolphin trainer was one of my more creative ideas).  But there was really no question that being a librarian was a career near to my heart.  I vividly remember the closet I shared with my little sister.  There were bookshelves inside that I kept in order, along with my very own card catalog.  I wish I could remember now how I cataloged each book.  But I knew enough from my experience at our public library to add title, author and a summary to the card for each book.  It was a natural thing for me, to organize and check out my own books.

Once I went to library school, and then began working in public libraries, I discovered that one of my favorite things to do was readers advisory - matching readers and books.  I just loved working with children and hearing what they were interested in.  This sort of conversation as we walked over to the shelves might lead to a whole stack of books as I heard what they had read last, what they liked and didn't like to read, whether they like to read at all, and how long the book was required to be.  All these things would get mixed into my head and come out as title recommendations.  Even better would be the later conversations, when they tried something and liked it, or maybe didn't like it, and could articulate why.  That would lead to more books, more conversations, and on and on, in an incredibly fulfilling loop of relationship between children and books.  In many ways, that is what I continue to do with all of you, my readers.  But it doesn't always feel the same.


The little girl in The Midnight Library is of course a girl after my own heart.  Starting in the endpapers, her world is stocked with shelves of books, swaying under their weight.  The books are interspersed with lanterns, an occasional helper owl and a ladder.  It's the sort of place that makes you want to slip in and explore.  Even better, the title page shows the young librarian, with pigtails flying, welcoming a string of library patrons.  Those patrons happen to be animals, but you can sense their excitement from their smiles as they approach.

The story is fairly simple - this library is only open at night, and is staffed by the little girl librarian and the three owls, who dash and fly around at her beck and call.  Animals visit the library in droves, but are respectful of the library as a place to learn. But one night things go a little awry.  A band of squirrels begin to play music in the reading room, and needs to be escorted to an activity room.  Then a wolf begins to cry so much at the plot of her book that the wolf's tears fall like rain (hey, we've all been there!).  Finally, at closing time, a tortoise believes that he shouldn't leave the library until he's finished reading his book...and he only has 500 more pages! We all know how slow tortoises are!  What's a librarian to do?

While I don't agree that the library should always be a quiet place, there are many, many things I love about this book.  First and foremost, I love that she is a young librarian.  It shows us all that children are never too young to love and be advocates for books and reading.  There is always such joy and enthusiasm on the girl's face as she interacts with her patrons.  I love that she is a problem-solver, without judgment.  The wolf is so upset by her story and tells the librarian "' Something very sad happened in my story and I can't read it any more.'"  But the librarian leads the wolf over to a storytelling area, and the read the story together, supporting the wolf until she smiles.  Finally, and what I love most about this story, is that the librarian is a valued and loved member of her community.  This Midnight Library is a community space, where everyone shares their activities and their interests together.  They trust her to be there for all the animals, and to meet them where they are.  The young librarian doesn't yell at the tortoise for trying to finish the long book, she gives him a library card.  She is patient with the noisy squirrels, crying wolf and slow-moving tortoise.  Each of these patrons has very different needs, and she is able to fulfill all of them.

Though the plot of this story is wonderful, I have to admit that it's the illustrations that really do me in.  First of all, the pages are a lovely muted orange - a very unusual choice for a picture book.  But because Kohara uses linocuts for her illustrations, the color choice works very well.  The linocuts involve a lot of heavy dark lines and print, and the orange just stands out perfectly.  And to add to the contrast, Kohara uses a deep blue as an accent.  It helps create the feeling of midnight, and it also makes The Midnight Library feel very charming, cozy and friendly.

The characters in the book are so endearing and warm too.  Because of the linocut technique, they are created with very few lines, but you realize there doesn't need to be a lot of detail to add personality.  The tortoise, eyes almost closed with the effort of reading, weights his page down with his flipper.  Behind him, the owl assistants ring the bell to close the library.  And speaking of the owls!  They are my very favorite part of the book.  The owl assistants are there on every page, hovering over the librarian, stamping and shelving books.  They really are the cutest!!!

I quite often buy children's books about libraries for my own collection.  The Midnight Library is one that I cannot pass up! Celebrate reading with this darling librarian and her wise assistants.

The Midnight Librarian. Kazuno Kohara.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Friday, February 13, 2015

Viva Frida

My favorite time of year has just passed - the announcements of the ALA Media Awards!  I love those few days before the awards are announced, when all over the United States librarians, bloggers, children and adults who love children's books are buzzing about their favorite titles.  Authors and illustrators are hoping their phones will ring at some ungodly hour of the morning.  Mock lists are popping up all around the Internet.  And then I love those days after the winners are announced, as those lucky authors and illustrators who have gotten the phone calls retell how it happened and how they felt, and we all rejoice with them.  I haven't heard how Yuyi Morales felt when she got her phone calls, announcing her as the winner of a Caldecott Honor Award and the Pura Belpre Illustrator Award.  But this book, Viva Frida, is a work of art and magic, and I am thrilled to share it with you!

I will tell you right up front that I was lucky enough to discover Viva Frida this summer, through my reviewing assignment from School Library Journal.  Ordinarily, I would never try to review a book on my blog that I had already reviewed for SLJ.  However, once I read this one, and saw how gorgeous it was, I wanted to write about it here.  It also fits so nicely with my interest in books that represent the Hispanic culture.  And once I knew that SLJ editors agreed with my assessment that this was a truly special book, I had to ask for permission to write about it.  I was so happy that SLJ agreed!

And I intended to write about it long ago, but as often happens around here, other books shouted more loudly than this quiet, dreamy stunner.  I even set it aside two weeks ago, to try and get a review written ahead of the awards I knew it would earn.  That obviously didn't happen either!  But it hasn't been forgotten, and I am taking the opportunity to celebrate it now.

You can tell from the woman gazing serenely from the cover of Viva Frida that this book is about Frida Kahlo. Many of the hallmarks are present in that initial shot - her monobrow, her bright, festive clothing, the knowing gaze, papel picado, and updone hair.  The cover image is of Frida, alone and isolated, on a background of scattered flowers.  But while she is alone, her eyes meet the reader's gaze, and you can tell that her secret life comforts her.

The magic starts right from the cover illustration.  By the way, I want to thank Roaring Brook Press for including the list of media Yuyi Morales used in creating this title.  There is no way I could have guessed at all of the techniques she used, including: "stop-motion puppets made from steel, polymer clay, and wool, acrylic paints, photography, and digital manipulation."  Those of you who are regular readers of my blog know that I am fascinated by the art used  to create books, and this one is no exception.  The cover model of Frida is a puppet, but again, her gaze is so human, so present.  It is uncanny.

I am really going to try not to describe every page to you in this post.  It's difficult because they are so layered, so glorious.  It is also difficult not to want to describe each page's illustrations because that is where so much of the plot takes place.  For example, the title page shows Frida's desk, with a sketch, little stoppered bottles, an unfurled piece of leather and brushes. Also, just peering over the top edge of the desk is an inquisitive monkey, holding out a silver key in an enticing manner.  The monkey could be stealing the key off the desk, or holding it out for Frida to take.  Regardless, it is there that the "story" begins. 

As I mentioned before, the story line is primarily conveyed visually.  The text is bilingual, and comprised of "I statements" about Frida and her drive to create.  It is spare, with only two or three words per double-paged spread.  The text draws you into Frida's mind, heart and soul.  "I play/I know/I dream."  The text is poetic, and floats in space visually, leaving the reader plenty of room to admire the result of Frida's creativity.  The English words are in a heavy black font, with the Spanish equivalent hovering above in a ghostly gray or white.  The effect is dreamy.

To add to the text are Morales' illustrations.  For those of us familiar with Kahlo's life story and artistic themes, the book is instantly recognizable.  Diego Rivera is shown working in his overalls, sharing an artistic space with her.  As Frida explores her own creativity, you see her animals surrounding her, playing with her.   At one point, she and that endearing monkey get out a skeleton puppet to play with, as that monkey tangles in the strings.  Halfway through the book, at the moment when the text reads "Sueño= I dream", the art changes.  In the first half, the illustrations are clearly realistic representations of Frida's life.  Frida and Diego are puppets and their studio space and actions are clearly based in the tangible world.  But as soon as Frida begins to dream, things shift.  Frida's eyes are closed, and her animal companions stare transfixed at painted versions of Frida soaring above her own dreaming head.  As the pages continue, more and more of each spread is created through paintings.  The soaring Frida sees a fawn whose leg has been pierced by an arrow.  She swoops down to rescue it, and of course it returns to her "real life" with Frida, to become part of her menagerie.

In one of the last spreads, Frida says "que amo = that I love".  It is my favorite picture - Frida's eyes are closed in contentment, Diego kissing her on the cheek while the animals also look on in adoration.  And because Frida loves, she also creates, something that is so engrained in her soul, in her personality.  Frida is creativity.

There is an author's note at the end of the book, called "My Frida Kahlo".  It is written in both English and Spanish.  I love this author's note because I think it brings Kahlo's deeply thematic, layered work to life for young readers.  Morales admits "When I was younger, I often found her paintings tortuous and difficult to understand."  That simple statement allows readers to realize that admiring someone's art doesn't mean you always have to understand it.  Morales gives some basic facts about Kahlo's life and art in this note before showing how much Frida Kahlo inspired her: "Did she know how many artists she influenced with her courage and her ability to overcome her own limitations?"

Another thing I love about this book is its flexibility.  For those who know nothing about Kahlo's life, it can stand as poetry, as a self-affirmation.  It can be shared with young readers as part of an art appreciation unit, or during Hispanic Heritage or Women's History Months.  But for the older reader in a high school art class, or for someone who has studied Frida Kahlo's biography, the book really shines. There are so many layers to the art included here, so many things to discuss in the words and pictures I could go on and on.  It is so lucky for all of us that Yuyi Morales chose Frida Kahlo new life here.  It is magic you'll never forget.

Viva Frida.  Yuyi Morales; photography by Tim O'Meara.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

sent by publisher through School Library Journal

Saturday, January 24, 2015


Did you know today is National Readathon Day??  I have been meaning to blog about the fact that I am ready to participate in this readathon, sponsored by Penguin Random House.  But the girls had a very short week of school scheduled, coupled with the fact that both Frances and Gloria got sick with croup and colds this week.  So the week has gone way too fast!

So the readathon starts at 12noon and goes until 4pm.  It's only four hours, which makes it very doable for someone like me.  I can't wait to start reading.
I have two books ready to read for this afternoon...  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is my "grown-up" read for this afternoon.  Powerless by Matthew Cody is my teen book for the day.  If by some chance I finish both I always have plenty of backups!

I will check in once an hour, starting at noon, and let you all know where I am.  If you are participating too, chime in in the comments so I can cheer you on too!  Have a great Readathon!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Alice in Lace

It has been a long, long time since I wrote about Alice.  My last post was here, two years ago!  I feel like I should apologize to Alice - I had a new book read and ready to blog right after that.  It just took a really, really long time for it to make its way to the top of the pile!  I am really looking forward to continuing in this series, particularly since while I was taking that break, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor published the final book in the series, Now I'll Tell You Everything  . I can't wait to see how Alice grows up.

How could Alice be old enough to get married?  It hasn't been that long!!  She isn't, really... but their eighth grade calls is doing a unit in health class called Critical Choices.  As part of that unit, students are given hypothetical situations to learn about.  They have a new teacher, Mr. Everett, and he tells them "' Your grade will depend not necessarily on how you deal with your problem, but on the larger view you take.  I'll want to know how your solution affects you, the people around you, society, the works.'" (p. 2)  It's interesting that even though Mr. Everett explains that they'll be assigned hypothetical issues, everyone is worried about how they'll handle it, or how this hypothetical situation will be judged by others.  Alice's best friends, Elizabeth and Pamela, are total opposites - Elizabeth is more conservative, a little pious, and uncomfortable with the way things change as they grow up.  Pamela is free-spirited and slightly devil-may-care.  The two girls are both thinking about the same potential assignment, and their responses couldn't be more different.  Pamela jokes about the possibility of pregnancy being assigned to her.  "But Elizabeth worried that if she got the assignment for teenage pregnancy, she might have to go to the doctor for her first pelvic exam just so she could write it up for her report.  She's hopeless." (p. 3)

When the assignments are passed out, Alice and Patrick (who is Alice's boyfriend) are assigned to be married.  Mr. Everett's assignment asks them to plan a wedding, honeymoon, rent an apartment, find furniture and create a realistic budget.  Alice thinks this is an exciting idea, but Patrick isn't quite so thrilled.  Their friend Pamela is supposed to be pregnant, just the situation she joked about, and luckily Elizabeth is only buying a car.  Pamela asks Mr. Everett what she could possibly have to decide if she's already pregnant, and he chides her "'There are 'what ifs' all over the place.  That's what this class is about.  Thinking thinks through before they happen.  Planning your life instead of letting events decide things for you. '" (p. 7)

Alice's ongoing story throughout the series (if you haven't been reading the series from the beginning like I have) has the added theme of grief.  Her mother died of cancer when Alice was five.  Alice barely remembers her, but her older brother Lester (who is seven years older) remembers her much more vividly.  In Alice in Lace, Lester turns 21, and Alice and her father celebrate with him.  Lester asks them: "' Do you remember the way she always brought a Kleenex to the table when she carried in a birthday cake with candles?' Dad looked puzzled for a moment. 'Now that you mention it, I guess I do.' 'I always thought that it was because she was emotional about our growing up and had a tissue ready in case she cried', Lester said. 'I didn't find out till much later that the smoke from the candles always set off her allergies, and that's why she blew her nose.'" (p. 39).  They all laugh at this idea, and the story brings back warm memories.  But Alice can't help wishing she remembered more about her mother, so she can participate in these conversations too.

With Alice planning her hypothetical wedding and Lester turning 21, their mother is never far from all of their hearts.  At the end of the unit, the class decides to throw a wedding for Patrick and Alice.  While trying on dresses at Pamela's house, Alice thinks of how this might have been different.  "I was thinking how, when the big day really came, if it did ever come, my mother wouldn't be a part of it.  She couldn't help me choose the dress, couldn't help with the flowers or invitations, wouldn't be there smiling at me in the first row.  I reached up and wiped my eyes before anyone could notice, but I felt a big hole in my chest, an empty place that nothing could fill." (p. 134).  What I like about Naylor's depiction of the family's grief is that it is very natural.  The waves of their sadness come and go, and it's at "big" moments where she is particularly missed.

One very poignant moment happens late in the book.  Alice is trying to grasp a little of the realities of a wedding and a honeymoon, and late one night she goes in to her dad's room to talk about it.  "I was just about to knock and go in when I saw him standing by his closet, his back to me. ...And he had his face buried in it, like he was, well, drinking in the scent.  I couldn't move.  I couldn't go backward or forward.  It was Mom's robe.  I don't know how I knew, but I knew.  And after a long moment, I saw his shoulders rise, as though he were taking a deep breath, and then he slowly hung it on a hanger again, and put it at one end of his closet." (p. 143-4)  This scene helps readers understand that the cycles of grief continue on, and that sometimes you need the support of that person, even after they're gone.

There is one other component to Alice in Lace.  Naylor quite often weaves social issues into her plots.  I mentioned earlier that Mr. Everett is a new teacher at their school, but not how young and cute he seems to his students.  "Mr. Everett was probably about thirty and really tall, maybe six foot five, wore Dockers, and rolled his shirtsleeves up above his elbows.  A younger version of Brad Pitt, Pamela described him.  His smile was what got to us.  It was warm.  Friendly.  You couldn't call it flirtatious.  He just gave the impression of really loving his job." (p. 1-2).  A cute teacher, talking about hypothetical life situations including marriage and this setting off alarm bells yet?  One of the female students, Jill, decides she doesn't like the assignment she is given (to plan a funeral for her grandmother) and asks to have it switched.  Mr. Everett very diplomatically refuses.  She goes to see him after school to ask again, and he again refuses.  Alice is in the room when it happens, but Jill doesn't see her.  Alice, however, describes what happened.  "He tucked his papers under one arm, and gave her a quick hug  with the other as he headed for the door. 'Come on now, Jill. You can do it.' he said, and he was gone." (p. 93).  Jill wants to punish Mr. Everett for not allowing her to change her assignment, and she tells the other students that Mr. Everett made comments about her body in the conversation Alice observed.  Then Mr. Everett is suspended for the alleged actions, and Alice realizes that she has to speak up about what she saw that day.

All of these plots, which sound very disparate and isolated, actually come together in a very realistic way.  I continue to love Alice' growing-up journey.  Even as an adult, many of the things Alice and her family go through resonate with me.  Does that mean I've never grown up?  On the contrary, I prefer to think that Naylor's books just continue to be relevant.  Looking forward to Alice's next experiences.

Alice in Lace.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996.

from my own collection.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Park Scientists

You know I am a huge fan of the Scientists in the Field series.  I write about them often, including my most recent post, here. One of the things I love most about this series is how accessible they make science for kids.  I believe that the word 'scientist' most often conjures up an image of a person in a white coat with goggles on, in a sterile lab, standing behind smoking test tubes.  But this series brings readers to interesting places, where research takes place out in the world.  Many of the places this research takes place are exotic - Australia, Africa and New Zealand.  Those are amazing places, and I am fascinated with  Park Scientists because it takes place here, "in America's own backyard."

First, Carson gives a little of the history of the National Parks and some of their locations.  In the United States, we tend to think of the national parks as fun places to visit on a trip, camp in, or explore.  But the author points out that scientists benefit the parks, and parks benefit the scientists.  One of the biggest benefits to doing research in a national park is that "Because national parks are protected places, researchers are able to do long-term studies of ecosystems, geysers, and climate.  Scientists can collect data for years or decades without worrying about a highway going in or a meadow being plowed under.  Parks are like natural laboratories." (p. 1)  I think that is an important idea for readers to grasp - that science is going on all around them.  And the idea of the national park being a stable environment makes so much sense - of course these are the places where external factors can be controlled  We all want our national parks to be preserved, and this is another reason to add to the list.

Carson takes in-depth looks at researchers in three national parks in very different climates and parts of the United States.  Of course, I was very excited to see that the first national park was my state's Yellowstone National Park.    Each national park's section begins with a page of facts about the park, including size, age, websites and reasons to go visit that park.  Did you know that Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was the very first national park?  The reason Yellowstone was created was due to its geysers, which is the first item researchers are studying in this book.  Readers go out on the trail with two NPS geologists towards Norris Geyser Basin.  There have been reports of possible new hydrothermal activities there, and the geologists need to survey the site, to monitor what's happening.  They take temperatures and measurements before moving on to other activities.  Of course, when researching boiling hot geysers, the geologists have to wear special protective gear, including heat-resistant boots and wool socks.  Their scientific gear includes "temperature guns, an infrared camera, notebooks, regular cameras, temperature probes, a psychrometer, and gas detectors." (p. 9)  That's a lot of stuff!

At Yellowstone, geysers aren't the only thing being researched.  Another group being studied are the grizzly bears.  Wildlife scientists at Yellowstone research many factors in bear behavior, including hibernation and the way mother grizzlies give birth during the winter (stay tuned for another book review on grizzlies soon!).  There is an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team at Yellowstone that studies these bears.  They use many pieces of equipment to track bears throughout the 19,000 square miles around Yellowstone that is grizzly territory.  There are telemetry collars, that send signals to researchers of a bear's location.  There are also GPS collars, that collect data and store it.  When the electronic clock located within the collar signals that time is up, the collar unlocks and drops off.  Cool, huh?  Scientists then use telemetry to find the collar and download and analyze its data.  "Study Team scientists collect information on what bears eat, as well as bear signs - tracks and trails, scat and fur, claw and rubbing marks, and whatever else the bears leave behind." (p. 24)  For example, grizzlies eat the seeds of the whitebark pine prior to hibernation.  The seeds are oily and help grizzlies store calories for the winter.  But these trees are dying, so researchers must find other alternatives to introduce.

The next national park is Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona.  The first type of scientist featured who works in Saguaro National Park is a herpetologist.  You might think that the natural reptile being studied in a desert environment would be a rattlesnake, but you'd be wrong.  This herpetologist studies Gila monsters.  I'd lived in central Arizona for a few years, and this chapter taught me so much - I really knew nothing about Gila monsters.  I had no idea that Gila monsters have a venomous bite!  I guess it was lucky for me that I never saw one in the wild, then.  They are primarily nocturnal and live in underground burrows, so scientists track them using telemetry also.  Gila monsters haven't been studied much, so there is much to learn.  "Scientists  don't even know the time of year the lizards are born.  Gila monster moms lay eggs in underground burrows in the late summer, and baby Gila hatchlings leave burrows the following spring.  When exactly they hatch during those eight to ten months is their well-kept secret." (p. 31-2)

One of the coolest things happening in Saguaro National Park during the time Carson documents is something called "citizen science".  This is focused around a program called BioBlitz, "a twenty-four hour scientific inventory of every species in Saguaro National Park" (p. 34).  The BioBlitz in Saguaro National Park took place in 2011, and included five thousand volunteers who counted "more than 1,200 kinds of plants, insects, animals and fungi." (p. 48).  What an awesome experience!  Carson tells readers that one BioBlitz a year is taking place until 2016 - if you are interested in learning more, you can go here. - this site has lots of resources to create your own BioBlitz, which I think is great!  But the 2015 BioBlitz is at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park this May - sign me up!

So this section of the book takes place during the 2011 BioBlitz, and another thing I love is that teenagers get involved with surveying saguaro cactus (what else?).  The scientist who is helping them complete their survey thinks this is crucial: "Saguaro National Park's future depends on young people becoming real, true stewards of this park." (p. 48).  These teens are in Section 17 of the park, measuring saguaros, counting arms and nest holes, adding to a database that covers seventy years of cactus data.  Section 17 has been the site of an ongoing study since 1941, trying to find the cause of saguaro deaths.  The teens and the information they collect are part of an enormous longitudinal task.

Finally, there is a section about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which stretches across Tennessee and North Carolina.  The first species being studied here exists nowhere else in the world except sections of the national park.  It is the red-cheeked salamander.  This salamander is unusual because it is terrestrial.  But these salamanders must live where there is high humidity and cool temperatures.  "The longer a salamander must be out looking for food in the open air, exposed to wind and warmth, the more water it loses." (p. 53).  There are very few places these salamanders can live successfully.  "Only 575 square miles of the park has a cool and humid enough climate at a high enough elevation - a suitable microclimate - for them" (p. 54).  One of the pieces of this chapter that will pique readers' interest is the background of the evolutionary ecologist.  She tells how her interest in animals got her started in her career, and how those qualities help her today.

The last section is about an expert on fireflies, and a phenomenon that also happens only in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Each summer, synchronous fireflies light up the sky around Elkmont, Tennessee.  Synchronous male fireflies blink in unison to attract females.  Even more amazing than the phenomenon is the fact that while Elkmont natives had known about these fireflies for generations, science believed that these fireflies did not exist until 1993.  Again, the habitat of the Great Smoky Mountains is a factor in the large number of fireflies within the park - there are lots of moist forest trees and leaves there.

This book obviously had lots of great information and facts that I had never known before.  Carson organizes most of this information in sidebars on each page, and this can include additional facts, maps, and statistics on the national parks.  There are also graphs and charts to assist readers.  This large amount of information within the text, though, means that there is less back matter.  There is a glossary, index, and lots of detailed source notes, alongside bibliographic citations.  One of the things Carson takes pains to point out is how much impact the researchers had on the book.  They all reviewed their own sections of the book.  I think this is important for young readers to understand - how important it is to get others' words right.

This book (and this whole series) are great additions to school libraries.  There is a large emphasis on science in our schools and as a career choice, particularly for girls.  This series can really bring that occupation to life.  And there is such diversity in this book from the topics studied to the people involved.  It was as fun to read as it was educational.

Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America's Own Backyard .  Mary Kay Carson; with photographs by Tom Uhlman.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Becoming a Ballerina

This post should have been written at least two weeks ago.  I had intended to put it up around the time we actually went to The Nutcracker, but, like many people, I suspect, the holidays seem to have passed by in a blur of holiday traditions and wrapping paper.  I am just now getting back into my regular routines, writing being one of them.  I'm looking forward to spending 2015 with all of you!

Here in Helena we are lucky to have two ballet companies who each offer productions of The Nutcracker during the holiday season.  And because Helena is also a fairly small town, we knew dancers in both of the productions.  We ended up going to the production that was scheduled the weekend before Christmas.  Frances and Gloria have a friend who was in that Nutcracker, and they were so excited to see her perform!  It was very fun to see her and recognize her up on stage, and the whole event lit my girls up with its magic.

Like most families, we have lots of Christmas traditions.  One of my favorite traditions is wrapping twenty-five holiday books up before December first each year.  Then Frances and Gloria alternate opening a book each night to read.  We have many versions of The Nutcracker, so the girls are very familiar with the story.  But this was Gloria's first time attending The Nutcracker, and Frances had only been one other time two years ago.  I was interested to see what the experience of seeing the ballet in person would be like for them.  Would they be bored or confused by the lack of words?  Would they be able to follow the plot?  As we walked back to our car after the ballet was over, I knew my worries were for nothing.  Both girls twirled happily through the snow, declaring what role they would play next year - despite the fact that neither has ever taken a lesson!

Because they've never had a lesson, Frances and Gloria have no idea of the work and hours of practice that go into each production of The Nutcracker.  I have to admit that I had only a very general idea myself.  These days, I only see The Nutcracker through a mother's eyes.  The mother of the girls' friend told me about all of the practices (we often scheduled playdates around practice on the weekends), and I knew it took quite a bit of family commitment.

But all of the drive, focus and commitment was revealed through Becoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story.  Fiona, the main dancer featured in this narrative, has been cast as one of the Claras for the Boston Ballet's version of The Nutcracker.  Because it's the Boston Ballet, and to make things easier for the dancers, there are multiple casts - 247 performers in all!  The book introduces Fiona at auditions for the ballet.  Fiona is the middle child in a family of three sisters, and all of them are auditioning.  The auditions are long and arduous.  Each girl must learn a series of steps for each set of roles, and recreate them perfectly.  There are also a series of callbacks before dancers are notified.  Fiona gets the part of Clara, and each of her sisters gets a role also. 

Once they've celebrated their good fortune in getting cast, it is time to start the work.  The performers only have two months to learn everything.  There are many, many practices with long hours expected of them.  There aren't just the steps to learn, but Fiona must also discover Clara for herself, so she can bring Clara to life for everyone who attends her performances.  It's fascinating to see what Fiona learns, and how her version of Clara is slightly different from the other Claras who are cast.  The choreographer, Ms. Atkins, works with all of the Claras, both together and individually, to make sure their performances are the same, but with their own personality or strengths included.  "' How are you getting into your last arabesque?' she asks me.  Ms. Atkins is trying to get us to put the movements together so they mean more than just steps, so they look like a mini-performance." (p. 17)  There are many, many hours spent in the ballet studio.  For example, on November 21st, the company is performing their first run-through of the ballet.  Fiona notes "We've been at the studio since eleven o'clock this morning, and now it's almost two. ...Run-throughs take longer than the actual performance because we have to go over parts that need corrections, work on spacing, and have breaks.  All the Claras and Fritzes are required to attend all run-throughs with the company." (p. 23).

As I mentioned about the ballet company in Helena, there is also a huge family commitment to the show.  Fiona talks about her mother (who, remember, has three dancers in the cast!).  "She never complains about the hours she spends in the car everyday, driving us back and forth from school to ballet to home.  And on top of that, she teaches piano." (p. 20)  Fiona mentions school several times, and it must be a challenge to keep up with homework during this season.  "I have lots of good friends at the ballet school, but it's different with my regular school friends.  I don't get to hang out after school or on weekends, because I'm always in class or rehearsal..." (p. 20).  Fiona also tells another dancer that her mother had to wake her up at three in the morning because they had forgotten to set her hair in curlers the night before.  There are an amazing amount of details that go into getting everything just right.

Frances, Gloria and I first read this book about a year ago, and one of the things that stuck with me was Fiona's worry that she wouldn't hit the Mouse King with her slipper during the Battle scene.  It was so fun to see it take place on our stage and I let out a sigh of relief when our Clara's slipper actually did hit the Mouse King.  I had never thought about how tricky that might be before, but I had a new appreciation for it.  And on opening night, Fiona also hits the Mouse King! Whew!

This book is much more picture book nonfiction than some of the other books I review.  I prefer my nonfiction to have lots of back matter - this title doesn't have any, but I could see where it would be nice to have some.  I would have loved to have a glossary of ballet terms, perhaps with drawings of each movement.  I would have also liked to see some information about which version of The Nutcracker was performed by the Boston Ballet.  But that isn't the purpose of this book.  The book is structured as a narrative, and it works very well.  You see everything through Fiona's eyes, and she has a very likable, readable voice.  The authors are able to get quite a bit of detail about ballet and Fiona's life into this narrative.  We learn so much about the requirements of this particular ballet, as well as how the Boston Ballet prefers to produce it.  It is also interesting to see how Fiona continues to improve and learn throughout the two months.

The book is illustrated with lots and lots of photographs.  It helps add to the feeling that this is Fiona's diary - you get to see her practice, spend time with her sisters and friends, watch her at home and in performances.  The costumes are glorious, and the whole book makes you feel like you really know Fiona.

This book is a fun addition to our collection of Nutcrackers.  I can't wait to read it again with Frances and Gloria now that we have seen the ballet this year.  I'd recommend it to any of you who have children who are as eager to begin lessons as mine are!

Becoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story starring the dancers of Boston Ballet.  Lise Friedman & Mary Dowdle.  Viking, 2012.

sent by the publisher for review